A friend sent me Ms. Magazine’s article on dress codes and their influence on girls, and ultimately our culture’s respect for women’s bodies. “What Do Dress Codes Say“ starts an important conversation we need to be having about policing girls’ and women’s bodies.
The author writes about various middle schools and high schools that keep popping up in the news with stories of new additions to their dress codes for girls. The argument for most of the restrictions is that girls’ bodies are distracting to the boys. The problems with this argument are manifold; we are teaching girls to live their lives based on the male gaze, that they are objects. We are also teaching girls that the way they dress determines their character, and any deviation leaves them vulnerable to slut-shaming.
When we tell young girls that their clothes are distracting the boys, we are telling them that their thoughts and emotions come second to their male peers. When schools tell girls that their clothes are causing problems for boys, they learn that boys’ behavior is more important than they are. By telling girls their clothing is more representative of their selves than their actions and thoughts, we are telling them that they, as people, are lesser.
We accept these rules because they fit neatly into the system of patriarchy, specifically that which allows boys and men to reject responsibility for their actions.
-TW – discussion of sexual violence – When we tell twelve-year-old boys that getting distracted by girls’ clothes is an acceptable excuse for doing poorly in school or harassing students, we are laying the groundwork for telling men that it isn’t their fault if they sexually assault a woman depending on how she’s dressed. It perpetuates the “boys will be boys” argument that allows boys and men to get away with violence. –End TW –
Beyond the external harm, the argument tells boys and men that they are stupid and unable to control themselves or act rationally when women are in their presence. I don’t know why we can’t see this idea as incredibly insulting to men’s intelligence; We are consistently telling boys that nothing is their fault because they couldn’t possibly know better. I think it’s time we start talking about accountability.
We need to teach girls that decisions about their bodies are theirs to make so that they can grow up feeling empowered instead of objectified. We need to teach boys that a person’s outfit does not excuse their behavior in any context. Girls need to grow up learning that their clothes do not necessarily mean something sexual, and if that is their intention, they should not feel shamed for it, nor should it dictate others’ actions. We are suppressing women’s sexuality, and creating tight confines around men’s, so that they are uncontrolled monsters.
Middle school girls should not worry about being harassed or causing someone else’s academics to suffer based on whether or not their dress has straps. The whole idea is absurd, and we need to stop recreating these situations where we constantly police women’s bodies.